Gruffalo creator Julia Donaldson on life in Steyning, helping others and inspiring a generation
- Credit: JIm Holden
Julia Donaldson is beloved by millions of children as the creator of the Gruffalo. The book, published in 1999, has been translated into 50 languages and has inspired a feature film and a whole host of merchandise. Now Julia is back in West Sussex, and inspiring another generation of children
The atmosphere hums. Children scurry to and fro in the watery sunshine. Nibbling on special themed biscuits, they excitedly colour in activity sheets while their parents queue patiently, awaiting their turn in the marquee.
For lovers young and old of the classic children’s tale The Gruffalo, the person tucked away in the tent is very special. Julia Donaldson has moved back to Steyning from Glasgow and her first port of call is the well-loved literary landmark, Steyning Bookshop. It is a moment exciting for both personal and professional reasons: Julia’s two new adventures, The Scarecrow’s Wedding and The Flying Bath, have just hit the bookshelves and she is here to meet fans and sign first editions.
It is very much a family affair, which is how Julia likes it. While she signs the books, her husband Malcolm entertains everyone in the sunshine, playing his guitar and persuading children, and the odd member of staff, to act out songs from the books.
After her phenomenal success with The Gruffalo – which ranked her alongside the likes of Tolkein, CS Lewis and JK Rowling in The Telegraph’s recent listing of best-loved children’s writers, and fifth in data provider Nielsen’s list of top-selling authors since 2001 - Julia has returned to her roots. In her early days, she focused on song-writing and theatre workshops for children in Brighton and composed songs for presenters and puppets on TV programmes such as Playdays.
Brought to book
“I wrote a song called A Squash and Squeeze and was approached by Methuen Publishing, who asked if the words to the song could be made into a picture book with illustrations by German artist Axel Scheffler,” remembers Julia. “That was a turning point, a pivotal moment really. And it coincided with a boom in picture book stories at the time.”
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Published in 1993, A Squash and Squeeze not only marked Julia’s crossover into book publishing, but also the start of her long-standing partnership with Scheffler, whose illustrations are immortalised in the Gruffalo series. But after moving to Scotland, Julia continued to work on educational plays and developed an interest in telling what she calls “trickster tales”.
While looking for ideas for an educational series of plays based on traditional tales, she came across a version of a Chinese story about a little girl who escapes being eaten by a tiger by claiming to be the fearsome Queen of the Jungle and inviting him to walk behind her.
Julia sensed that this story could be developed into a picture story book for the UK market by substituting the girl with a mouse, and choosing a fox, owl and snake as woodland rather than jungle creatures, using rhyming couplets to enhance repetition and phonic practise for early readers.
“Every page has to be a mini cliffhanger,” says Julia, as she describes the art of keeping children transfixed. Even then she admits that The Gruffalo proved almost impossible to write. Encouraged by her three sons she persisted, substituting her original concept of a buffalo with the more fearsome sounding gruffalo, while retaining a three-syllabled name to rhyme with the mouse’s repeated exclamation: “Doesn’t he know?”
Julia sent the text to Axel Scheffler, whom she had met only once or twice, following the publication of A Squash and a Squeeze. Within days, Macmillan Children’s Books made an offer to publish The Gruffalo illustrated by Scheffler and in 1999 a modern classic was born.
“The success of the story came as a complete surprise,” Julia recalls. “It all happened so quickly, almost overnight. As soon as it was published it attracted 12 editions in different languages. We were holidaying in Venice at the time and saw the coverage in The Observer – a whole page on The Gruffalo, which we were very surprised about!
“The book definitely established me like I had never been before. In songwriting things were always changing and unpredictable. After The Gruffalo it meant that financially we could buy our own flat and help the boys buy their first homes.” And with a touch of justifiable pride Julia adds: “There are now 50 editions in different languages, which I think is pretty good going!”
The Gruffalo’s children
The Gruffalo effect has been as magical as its storyline. Children took the tale to their hearts, watching in awe as a cunning mouse navigates the deep, dark forest, fending off a fox, snake and owl with tales of his imaginary monstrous friend, the Gruffalo. The book flew off the shelves. To date The Gruffalo has sold well over 13 million copies, been adapted for stage in both the West End and Broadway, and was made into a 30-minute animated film in 2009.
Scheffler’s iconic illustrations have spawned a whole range of merchandise – from pens, pencils and stationery to kitchenware, textiles and clothing.
Julia’s arrival on the international writing stage was marked by a flurry of awards, including the prestigious Nestle Smarties award for child fiction and poetry in 1999. Her productive relationship with Scheffler continued to flourish, with Julia picking up on similar themes in The Gruffalo’s Child featuring its cast - Mouse, Fox, Snake and Owl – and Stick Man, inspired by the Gruffalo’s child’s toy.
The ultimate accolade for Julia’s talent and work came in 2011 when she was appointed Children’s Laureate. This gave her the opportunity to throw herself whole-heartedly into her love of acting and singing, as she set out to encourage children to perform poetry, plays and dramatised readings to generate a love of books and of reading.
In collaboration with other writers, she created a series of Plays to Read for six characters to be performed in the classroom, an anthology of Poems to Perform by groups of children and an interactive website which gives guidance on how to select picture books that can be easily turned into classroom plays.
As part of her role Julia also took her passion to inspire children to read into the political arena. Faced with imminent cuts and closures, she campaigned on behalf of local libraries, writing articles and meeting ministers. With her husband Malcolm she embarked on a six-week tour of UK libraries to celebrate their service to the community and generate publicity for those facing cut-backs. Julia was succeeded as Children’s Laureate in 2013 by Malorie Blackman.
Also in 2011, Julia won the Nasan Award for an outsanding special educational needs resource in 2011 for Running on the Cracks, a sympathetic and inclusive portrait of Mary who, having befriended Leo, suffers a severe relapse of her bi-polar condition. The poignant portrayal was based on the experiences of her son Hamish, who died in 2003 after suffering from depression and bi-polar disorder.
Tapping on her computer late into the night in her Steyning basement study, Julia continues to write prolifically. She speaks excitedly about her recent creations, alive with imagination for every character.
“I was staying with a friend and she had a bath with clawed feet,” Julia remembers as she describes the inspiration behind The Flying Bath. “So the story is about a bath that flies around the world, meeting animals who are thirsty. They phone in for help, so for example a bee phones in because her flowers are droopy. The idea is to show different uses of water.”
And in The Scarecrow’s Wedding Julia’s storytelling takes on a romantic slant. “This is a love story about two Irish scarecrows, Betty and Harry, who are getting married and collecting things for the wedding. But the farmer can’t understand why they’ve disappeared so creates another bad scarecrow who tries to woo Betty back.”
As Julia relays her adventures I find myself eager to hear more, every sentence a cliffhanger as she weaves her art of captivating readers, young and old.
My favourite Sussex
• Steyning Bookshop - “I love Sara and Robin’s bookshop – they are really knowledgeable and have great stock. During my Brighton days we always used to troop over there and do a little show at the back and Sara made homemade cakes and brought along a bottle of wine!”
• London Road Market, Brighton - “I now really like the organic veg shop The Sussex Produce Shop in Steyning. But as we lived in Brighton for nine years in Seven Dials we normally went to London Road Market and that’s great too.”
• Infinity Foods, Brighton - Another of Julia’s favourite organic outlets: “I got my first two cats as kittens from the owner and I based Arthur the TV Cat on one. From then on I think we populated Sussex with kitten stock!”
• Fittleworth - “We have lots of friends in Steyning and Brighton. We often used to head off to Fittleworth and go camping in the fields by the Downs.”